Georgia: Rose Revolution meets the new boss

In contrast to their Cold War counterparts of yesterdecade, who openly embraced any dictator who was “our son of a bitch,” today’s neocons often seem to really believe their own rhetoric about how their global project is expanding democracy. This is why the auto-golpe in Pakistan puts them in such a pickle. Compounding their discomfort is the similar power-grab that US-backed President Mikhail Saakashvili is now attempting in Georgia—just two weeks short of the fourth anniversary of the “Rose Revolution” that put him in office. At the time of the Rose Revolution, the kneejerk anti-America crowd squawked about how it was all the work of the CIA and George Soros. Now Saakashvili is squawking about how the current wave of protest is all the work of Russian secret agents. Funny how those in power never seem to think anyone would have any legitimate reason to be pissed off at them.

Saakashvili imposed a national state of emergency after the violent dispersal of peaceful opposition protests in the capital, Tbilisi, Nov. 7. Some 1,000 riot police used rubber bullets, tear gas, water cannons and truncheons to break up the protest vigil—which had dwindled to a few hundred after swelling to as many as 100,000 after it began Nov. 2. Private and opposition Georgian broadcasters showed graphic images of the violent repression—before being summarily shut down by government decree. The Health Ministry said more than 500 sought medical assistance as a result of the police attack.

“The police operation started without any warning,” said Ivlian Khaindrava, a leader of the opposition Republican Party. “They kicked participants in the rally, several people were arrested, and cameras were smashed or seized from representatives of different television channels. There is only one solution: this government must go.”

Saakashvili defended his actions as “a leader of this country’s young democracy,” and said the use of police force was commensurate with measures taken by Western governments. Countered Holly Cartner, Human Rights Watch director for Europe and Central Asia: “Even in a time of crisis, Georgians have a right to protest peacefully without being beaten by the police. Firing rubber bullets at peaceful demonstrators is a complete abuse of the use of force. The government does not have carte blanche to restrict fundamental freedoms just because it is in crisis.”

In a surprise move the day after the repression, Saakashvili offered a concession to the opposition, announcing he would schedule early presidential elections—moving the vote from next fall to Jan. 5, 2008. He also agreed to a parallel referendum on whether subsequent parliamentary polls will be held in the fall as scheduled or spring next year, as protesters had demanded. But the opposition is also demanding Saakashvili’s resignation, and the freeing of “political prisoners.” Saakashvili has refused to negotiate with the protesters. (RIA-Novosti, RFE/RL, Nov. 8; AlJazeera, Nov. 7)

The movement against Saakashvili is displaying the same kind of courage and tactical savvy as the November 2003 movement against his Moscow-backed predecessor Eduard Shevardnadze. Young people wearing white headbands reading “I am not afraid!” formed into what they called “corridors of shame” outside government buildings, demanding the officials who work there resign. But Saakashvili called the protesters “a pale imitation of the Rose Revolution”—and pointed to the hand of Moscow and the old regime.

Accusing former defense minister Irakli Okruashvili and media magnate Badri Patarkatsishvili of masterminding the protests, Tbilisi mayor Giorgi Ugulava said “‘Badriotism’ won’t replace patriotism in Georgia.” Saakashvili suggested that Russian oligarch Boris Berezovksy, formerly a close associate of Patarkatsishvili, was orchestrating the protests.

The protest wave began with the Sept. 27 arrest of Okruashvili, who had accused Saakashvili of corruption and ordering the assassination of Patarkatsishvili. While in detention, Okruashvili withdrew his allegations and was released on an unprecedented bail sum of ten million laris (some six million US dollars). On Nov. 5, having fled to Germany, Okruashvili made a televised address to the protesters in Tbilisi, saying the confession that led to his release had been made under duress, and that he was ready to prove his original allegations. Deputy prosecutor general Nikoloz Gvaramia responded by dismissing Okruashvili’s new statement as “lies.” (IWPR, Nov. 7)

Even as Saakashvili appeared to compromise Nov. 8, his prosecutor’s office charged two opposition leaders of espionage and conspiracy, claiming they were plotting a coup in collaboration with Russian agents. Tsotne Gamsakhurdia and Shalva Natelashvili “are accused of spying and plotting to overthrow the government of Georgia,” Gvaramia said on national television. Tsotne Gamsakhurdia is the brother of Konstantine Gamsakhurdia, leader of the opposition Freedom Party, and son of Zviad Gamsakhurdia, Georgia first post-independence president. Natelashvili is leader of opposition Labor Party. Both are believed to be in hiding. (Civil Georgia, IOL, Nov. 8)

Zviad Gamsakhurdia was toppled by a military coup in January 1992, less than eight months after he was elected president. After escaping armed clashes in Tbilisi, Gamsakhurdia with his family and government members found political asylum in Grozny, where they were hosted by the Chechen leader Djohar Dudaev. In 1993 Gamsakhurdia returned to Georgia in a bid to reclaim power—but was repulsed by troops loyal to Sheverdnaze’s new regime. Gamsakhurdia died under mysterious circumstances in western Georgia’s Samegrelo region in December 1993. His body was exhumed to be reburied in Grozny. On March 3 this year, Chechnya’s newly appointed President Ramzan Kadirov announced that the grave of Zviad Gamsakhurdia, once lost in the war-stricken Chechen capital, was found. His remains were exhumed once again and returned for reburial in Georgia.

Ironically, in the aftermath of the Rose Revolution, on Jan. 26, 2004, newly-elected President Saakashvili presided over a televised ceremony at Tbilisi’s Kashueti Church of Saint George, officially rehabilitating Zviad Gamsakhurdia to “put an end to disunity in our society.” (Georgian Times, April 5, 2007)

See our last posts on Georgia and the struggle in the Caucasus.